Last night I received a call I wish I never had to answer. I'd invited a group of 12 students over from school so it was loud and chaotic. We had just finished watching my church's Christmas play/musical and were getting ready to eat tacos. I saw that Mom left a message on my voice-mail but when I listened to it she just said she would be going to bed soon and if I didn't reach her we would talk tomorrow. I thought I'd try to catch her and when she answered she said, "Honey, I have bad news. Really bad. Joey's plane is missing somewhere over the Straits. They have rescue teams out but it doesn't look good." My first response was, "What?" I didn't believe her. I think I asked it two or three times. She repeated herself and I leaned against the counter for balance. I felt light-headed and heavy all at once. As she explained the scenario, I wanted nothing more than to sit on the floor and hide my head between my knees. My Joey. The first baby I "mothered." Born almost a year before my brother. I practiced on Joey. I'd get off the school bus at my aunt's and uncle's, run into the house and go straight to him. My aunt handed him off and I thought I was sooo big! I was in 4th grade after all and BABYSITTING! (My aunt never left the house - just went to her work area and created flower arrangements.) I fed him, changed his diaper, changed his clothes (just for fun), played with him, kissed him. He was my boy. I love my cousins...deeply. I've played with and mothered many of them, but Joey - he was first and he was special. It was with him that I discovered the secret to calming all our family babies...gentle kisses on the temple accompanied by soft humming, "I love you [Joey], Oh yes I do...Oh [Joey] I love you." One of our favorite stories is about the time I was rocking him in a chair that was precariously close to the edge of a step. I think it was a child's rocker and I was a child but a bigger one than for whom the rocker was intended. While I was holding him, rocking away, it broke. Joey and I tumbled out of the chair, over the step and landed in a heap on the floor. I tried so hard to protect him but he ended up splitting his little lip. He cried and I cried. I don't know who cried louder. My Aunt Joanne took the baby, my Aunt Cindy gathered me up and they both had their hands full comforting us kids! My Aunt Joanne was a young mom, but she was wise. After she had Joey settled, she gave him back to me. She let me know, by doing so, that she still trusted me, that it was an accident, and that Joey was still "my baby."
The fact that almost ten years separated us meant that as he grew older we had less in common. I still loved him but I wasn't his peer. He had cousins his own age (my brother, for one) to play with, to dream with, to tell his secrets to. I was the older cousin - still loved, but not quite the right age to be a chum.
Joey married his sweetheart, moved to Florida, got his pilot's license, moved back to the Upper Peninsula and was living in St. Ignace flying planes. He and Andrea welcomed their first child this past August...little Axel Joseph. Yesterday evening he left his small town to make a short flight to Mackinac Island where a few passengers were waiting to reach the mainland. He never made it. His plane crashed a few miles from St. Ignace about 100 yards in from the shoreline. Search and rescue teams were looking for him but it wasn't until today that they discovered the wreckage and then discovered his body.
My brother and I will fly home this week to say good-bye. I know he's not here anymore, but his wife is. His mom and dad are. His sister and brothers. His little boy. As a family, we will draw comfort from each other. We will mourn the loss of a man who left us way too early. He won't get to see his son grow up. He won't get to grow old with the love of his life. No more trout fishing. No more teasing. There will be a hole that will never be replaced. It's Christmas. We are celebrating the birth of a baby who made enduring this present grief possible. Because of Him, our good-bye to Joey is temporary. It's more like a "See you later." It doesn't mean it's not painful, overwhelmingly so. It doesn't mean we haven't asked, "Why?" It doesn't even mean we've accepted it or are at peace. It just means that at some point, when the numbness wears off, when enough months or years have passed that we are able to take deep solid breaths, we will remember the promise of eternal life. A life that Joey is living right now and we will eventually enter as well.
In the meantime, there is a wife who needs love. Arms to hold her, hearts to listen, eyes to share tears. There is a little boy who will grow up hearing stories about his daddy. Fortunately for him, he was born into a big family. The stories will be endless. Will it take the place of having his own father there for all the milestones in his life? No. But we will love him. We will keep Joey's memory alive. He will know his daddy through our words. My heart is heavy. I will miss "my boy." He's the first of us to go. The cousins will draw close. We will draw strength from each other. We will remember we are family and what that means. May we take that with us as we go our separate ways.
Thank you, Father, for the heritage I've been given. For parents who love you, grandparents who live(d) for you, aunts and uncles who serve you and cousins who are following you. I am blessed. Use us to proclaim you during this devastating time. Hold us close.